Alaska – Canoeing to the Bering Sea
»Big River« is what the Athabascan Indians call the Yukon. It’s one of the mightiest rivers on the planet. In this episode, Dirk Rohrbach travels the river all the way to the Bering Sea in a self-made canoe.
When I meet Kelly that morning I have no idea that this is the last time we’ll be seeing each other. With glassy eyes and a hairdo that resembles an exploded palm tree, she’s headed my way at the western beach of Little Corn Island. It seems as if Kelly was up all night.
»Christoph, I was up all night. What time is it?«
It’s ten o’ clock. She flings her arms around my neck. She smells a little of booze and a little of sweat. The whiff of a campfire is still in her hair. She sighs, exhausted. Then she whispers,
»Last night changed my life.«
I am making my rounds on Little Corn Island to say my goodbyes. In half an hour, the next panga will take me back to Big Corn Island. One last time, I traipse around the lodgings of my island acquaintances to tell everyone goodbye. To enjoy a last beer in the morning at Marc’s and Paul’s place, to give Norah from the other side at Grace’s Place one last hug. I’m not sure where Clara lives – but if she’s not out and about she’s usually with her Aqua Boy. Well, and then there’s Kelly who was going to go back with me today. We met on her fortieth birthday. That was yesterday.
»Looks like I’ll be staying here on Little Corn, Christoph«, she says and thereby sounds oddly breathless. We had actually decided last evening that we would leave together today. But we’ve only known each other for a few hours and don’t owe each other any explanation. So I assure her that it’s really okay if she intends to stay for a few more days.
»No, you don’t understand,« she interrupts me. »I mean forever. I know it sounds crazy. But it looks like I will be staying on Little Corn forever.«
I’m puzzled. She wouldn’t be the first one who ends up staying here. Like Clara– or the French twins up in the light house. Still, Kelly’s news makes me ponder. I look at her and try to remember what happened last night: I lost sight of Kelly after I finished my last Cuba Libre and went to bed. She was headed over to the Tiki Bar to go dancing. What exactly happened in the meantime? And what’s more: what is it with this island that people are affected by it in such a way?
* * *
One week earlier. About seventy kilometers off the coast of Nicaragua, two tiny spots lie in the Caribbean Sea. Two small, green mops of fuzz, which poke out from the turquoise blue, liquid rug and which somehow don’t want to fit in with the rest of the Central American country. They are called Las Islas del Maíz, the Corn Islands. But nobody cares much about the official language which is Spanish.
The people’s looks: Afro-Caribbean.
The music: Reggae.
The tongue: English creole.
Which is why the islands are simply called: Big Corn and Little Corn. Yo.
It doesn’t matter if you travel by ferry or plane: the route from the mainland to Little Corn always goes via Big Corn, which is regularly frequented. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m a bad sailor and easily get seasick. Having heard that the almost five-hour long boat ride from Bluefields can become strenuous every now and then, I decide to fly.
In fact, it’s unbelievable that airplanes can land on Big Corn at all – given that the bigger one of the two islands doesn’t span more than ten square kilometers. During our approach, I discover that the two-kilometer long runway makes a complete cut through the island, from the North to the South. It divides Big Corn into a slim West and a paunchy East.
I wonder what it was like when they planned the construction of the airport? When the inhabitants were informed that, in the future, it would take them half an hour to march around the runway if they wanted to visit their neighbor living vis-à-vis, only 50 meters away, as the crow flies? Or if they wanted to go shopping or to school? Just so a lazy tourist (babbling something about seasickness) could reach Big Corn, safely and dryly and quickly? Somehow that’s…
Luckily, there’s a “but” in this story.
Only a few minutes after landing, I am torn out of my bubbling thoughts. Oh well, sometimes I’m just a bit too German…
You’ve got to put all of this into perspective: officially, the paved area is a runway, yes. In the morning and in the afternoon, when the prop planes take off and land, it is closed to pedestrians. But in the remaining 23 hours of the day, people spread out their picnic blankets, organize tennis matches, ride their bikes. To the islanders, the runway is a promenade for strolling, a sports field, a playground and a meeting place. Or simply: the world’s biggest sidewalk.
* * *
The man with the grey hair wipes his greasy, fishy fingers on his formerly white undershirt and shakes his head, »Fish tacos are out. Come again at three.«
Then he lifts his thumb and smiling, reveals the gap between his teeth.
I guess the fish tacos must be killer if they’re already out in the middle of the day.
»Looks like you were dying to try these, huh?« a voice says behind me. Then a second voice joins the laughter. I turn around. It’s the two Americans from my lodgings. We’d talked the night before at the bar and they gave me the tip to stop by here at Victoria’s on the northern coast to try the »phenomenal fish tacos«.
»Haha, and what about you?« I counter laughing and point at their hands. They’re each holding a piece of coconut bread from the Island Bakery – a tip that I in turn had given them.
As observant readers of this story, you have long noticed that there’s not much going on on Big Corn. If the storyteller finds it necessary to include rusty crab signs in his selected circle of vacation highlights worth mentioning, it seems there’s not much more that’s worth mentioning. And you know what? That’s exactly why (so few) people like to come here: because they don’t have to share these beautiful Caribbean beaches with anyone.
Nothing earth-shaking happens on Big Corn.
I would also expect the same setting, the same atmosphere, the same beach bar reggae beats 15 kilometers further to the north-east. Three square kilometers with a lot of room for paradisiac nothingness. So it’s even more surprising that the opposite seems to be the case on the much smaller sister island Little Corn. That the world there moves and doesn’t stand still for many people – sometimes in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
* * *
It’s such a thing with these pangas, the blue, oversized nutshells that commute three times a day between Big Corn and Little Corn. During the crossing, it’s not unlikely that you will get soaking wet (which can be quite pleasant when it’s beyond thirty degrees outside) or that you’ll feel your back crack when the boat hits the hard water surface after a wave (which in turn can be quite unpleasant).
Once in awhile, it happens that a boat tips over in these rough waters. At the last accident of this kind, thirteen people lost their lives.
A pretty gruesome picture – still people here are dependent on the pangas. They are the connection between the two Corn Islands. Every food that doesn’t grow on the island, every medicine or household good, every tool, every bicycle tube and every fly swatter is brought to the island with the help of these wobbly outboard motor boats. But, above all, for the 800 inhabitants of Little Corn, the pangas are the only gateway to the outside world. Many islanders work on Big Corn, run their errands there, go to the dentist, to school. A current petition to the Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega aims at providing the remote island with safer boats.
The sea is comparatively quiet on this day. After half an hour, we dock on to the narrow wooden pier on Little Corn. The locals are already waiting for the new arrivals. For a few gold córdoba, they will load up the luggage on their cargo bikes and take it to the respective accommodation. Several curious backpackers disembark, among them also Marc and Paul, the two Americans I met on Big Corn.
When Paul discovers the sea front, he lets out a »Hell, yeah!« He spreads out his arms and turns his face to the sun, »Somebody meant well with us.«
»What brings you here?« I want to know from the two.
Marc tells me that he’s just taking a time-out from his job in the States and helped build a bridge in the past weeks on the mainland, a voluntary project.
»Now we’re taking a two-week vacation. One of the construction workers told us about Little Corn.«
We strap on our backpacks and start looking for our accommodation.
Café Desideri on Little Corn’s main street
From the pier, where more locals are dosing in the shade of the trees, a maybe 1.50 meter-long narrow, paved trail runs along the western beach. Soon, it turns out that this is the island’s main street: two café/restaurants, a handful of accommodations, a diving school – that’s it. There are no cars or other motorized vehicles on Little Corn, everyone goes by foot or by bike, at a max.
»Ten Dollars a day,« the young woman at the bike rental responds when I ask about the price. Her hair is very fair and her accent sounds very familiar.
»Where are you from?« I inquire. She seems to get the punchline and answers me in German, »From Germany.« – we laugh. Clara tells me that she backpacked through Central America with a friend a few months ago. The plan was to travel from Panama to Mexico.
»And well – on the road, somebody told us about this island. And I fell in love with Roy and got stuck here, I guess.« She looks happy while she tells me all this. And even happier when Roy comes around the corner. He’s a local and from the Corn Islands and recently opened up his own business, Aqua Boy. Aqua Boy offers snorkeling and fishing tours, rents out bikes and paddling boats. Clara joined him on the spot. »As girl Friday,« she says and beams.
Clara from Bavaria taking down snorkeling hours, her new life on Little Corn.
Gary’s and Sullivan’s story is even a bit more surprising. I meet the French twins during my bike tour at the lighthouse. Clara promised me the best view over the island from there, so I went. Gary and Sullivan sit on the porch of one of the glossy painted wood bungalows which are located on the hill and show me the way to the lighthouse.
»You’ve got nice lodgings here,« I say. »How much do you pay per night?« They grin.
»We’re the owners of the hotel,« Sullivan answers.
»We built it ourselves.«
Flabbergasted, I stop in my tracks. Now I want to hear the whole story. In 2013, the twins set out from France to embark on a world trip. There was no plan of coming here. But their path crossed that of another traveler who had just returned from Little Corn and who couldn’t stop raving about it.
»So, we came here – and immediately fell in love with the island.« Gary recounts. »We always had the secret dream of opening our own hotel. Here on the hill surrounding the lighthouse we found the perfect spot to do so.«
Back in France, they took care of the financing. In 2014, they were ready to start building and opened last year.
»That sounds wonderful!« I say. They both nod.
At that moment, a gentle breeze blows over the porch and there’s a rustling in the tree tops above us. I let my eyes wander across the island, and for a moment, I picture what it would be like if I stayed here, too. I have never asked myself that question. Of course, I have always wanted to travel to these great places and see the world. That’s why I became a travel author. But on the road, I have never felt the concrete desire to remain in one of these places. Because I always believed I knew where I belonged. But now, two men my age are sitting before me who questioned exactly that: where they belong and where they would like to be. Together, they gave up their entire life in France and moved to a place most people haven’t even heard of. Nobody whom I met on my trip knew that Little Corn even existed before they landed here. Three years back, that’s what it was like for Gary and Sullivan. Now, this island has become their home.
»Let me guess,« Gary interrupts my silence and gazing. »You’re asking yourself what kind of a place this is here, aren’t you?« At a loss, I nod and hunch my shoulders.
»That’s exactly how I stood here back then, on this hill, trying to make sense of Little Corn.« And then he says, like only someone with a French accent can say it in English,
»I don’t know, man. It’s magic.«
* * *
I must admit: magic isn’t quite my cup of tea. In general, I believe in what I see. At the world championship of big dreamers I would very likely rank at the bottom of the list with this prosaic worldview. I believe I can better shape my life by having a grip on reality rather than having a sentimental flight of fancy and believing in something between Heaven and Earth.
That’s why I’m even more surprised when I realize that I’m starting to search for this Inbetween here on Little Corn.
What’s up with this place here?
The island doesn’t span more than three square kilometers. It has a western and an eastern beach and a narrow trail that crosses the baseball field and takes you to Yemaya, the island’s only luxury resort, which is located on the remote northern beach. At Derek’s Place, I spend all day in the hammock, I slurp mango shakes at the Turned Turtle on the eastern beach and I meet a bunch of fascinating people in the woods and at the beach. For example, Michael. He’s a German physician who spends the winter in Nicaragua in order to volunteer here as a doctor. I keep asking myself what this island is doing to me. I am fascinated by this place which seems to be radiating so much energy. Is it Little Corn itself? Or is the people? Who – some with a plan, others who are more naive – realize themselves here.
I’ve been here for three days and know almost every nook and cranny. During this time, I have already made many acquaintances who, thanks to the island’s size, I come across several times a day to chat and whom, out of pure sentimentalism, I would even refer to as my friends. How come? What does it do to you to be so far away from the rest of the world? Does that make the people here closer then they would be elsewhere?
Or is it just the Cuba Libre in front of me that once again tastes so outstanding?
The tattoos on Kelly’s ring fingers symbolize her wedding rings. She recently got married to herself.
But who cares. All these thoughts and daydreams will be obsolete by tomorrow. I am sitting at the Tranquilo and it’s already dark. I can only make out the beach by the soft whooshing of the waves. Back in the corner, Clara and Roy are billing and cooing. The twins are here, too and just clinked glasses with Norah from the other side of the island. Frank, a diving tourist from Hamburg and Michael, the physician from Doctors Without Borders are talking at the bar, and Marc and Paul are clinking their beer bottles behind the counter. It’s my last evening on Little Corn. Early tomorrow, I will leave the island and will probably be asking myself for some time what it would be like if I weren’t such a wretched realist (okay, and father, whose kids are waiting for him at home).
Kelly from Portland is different that way. She sits across from me. We’ve known each other for half an hour. The whole place just sang for her because Kelly’s celebrating her fortieth birthday today. In the meantime, her tears of joy over the impromptu birthday serenade have dried. Although it’s actually unclear if it’s really out of joy.
»It’s a very emotional time for me right now,« she says. »40 is quite a benchmark.«
»I don’t know,« I try to play down the issue and let out the usual, »It’s just a number. Come on, you know, 40 is the new 30.«
»No, it’s not,« Kelly objects. »40 is the half of everything. It’s a turning point. 40 asks for a résumé.«
»So? Then what’s your résumé?« Kelly shows me her palms and points to her ring finger. Each is adorned by a subtle, small tattoo.
»About a month ago I sealed the first half of my life with a ceremony – back home in Portland, I got married to myself.«
I make big eyes. Then let out a »Wow!« Luckily, that can mean anything.
Because now, I’m absolutely positive that the woman in front of me has lost her marbles.
And still. There’s something about Kelly’s explanation that touches me.
»You know, a few months ago I realized that my life didn’t turn out the way I always imagined it would. I don’t have a husband, never had the opportunity to have kids.« Kelly strokes the tattoo on her left ring finger. »I became aware that the only person who has always been loyal to me is myself. So I went ahead and married myself.« She laughs out loud. Then tears roll down her face. I am on the fence.
»You think I’m nuts, don’t you?«
Now I allow myself to laugh as well, but – other than expected – can’t give her a clear answer. To marry yourself? Unusual, no doubt. I have never heard of such a thing. Somehow there’s something sad about her story, just the way she told it. Which is why one of us is crying right now. But this pure affirmation of yourself by yourself, this clear ‘yes’ to who you are, does impress me rather strongly. Do you understand what I meant in terms of energy?
Shortly after two, I say goodbye to Kelly.
»My panga leaves tomorrow morning.« Kelly grabs me by the arm.
»Would you mind if I joined you?« she asks. »I think I’d also like to leave tomorrow.«
»No, not at all– I’m glad. I’ll see you tomorrow!«
* * *
Eight hours later, I am standing with the still awake Kelly at the western beach. There’s the smell of campfire in her hair and I marvel at the spontaneous and enormous change of plans she has made to begin the second half of her life. »It’s magic, Christoph. This island is magic!« I have a sense where Kelly’s night might have ended yesterday.
»Did you visit the twins?« Kelly nods.
»You won’t believe it. Up by the lighthouse, there’s a vacant piece of land for sale. I am a certified therapist and always had the dream of opening a small health center. A little wellness, a little medicine. Little Corn is the perfect spot. Tomorrow I will meet up with the mayor and the landowner so we can talk about everything.« She says all this without catching her breath once.
»Wait, wait, wait,« I interpose. »All this happened in the past eight hours?« Kelly nods again and thereby looks very happy.
»I told you. Last night changed my life.«
A last time at the little pier
At the pier, the panga is ready to disembark. I give Kelly one last hug and wish her all the best for her plans, wherever they might take her. Who knows, maybe she will really stay on Little Corn, or maybe she will get a good night’s sleep and give it another thought. Either way, now I’m able to make up my mind: Kelly is nuts – completely nuts! And I think I’d like to be a little so myself. Then the blue nutshell disembarks and takes me away from this magical place.
* * *